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The Edwards Blogger Controversy

The Edwards Blogger Controversy

This morning, I read a great article at Salon by Lindsay Beyerstein (Majikthise) on why she refused the Edwards campaign blogging job the others accepted. I think her analysis of the issues was dead-on, and she figured it out in advance. I also thought she was perceptive about the issue of off-the-campaign surrogates:

Unfortunately, as the Edwards campaign learned the hard way, the right wing has a large network of surrogates, like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Bill Donohue, who can propel virtually any story into the mainstream media. These professional blowhards are supported by a lavish infrastructure of publishers, partisan media outlets, think tanks, grants, lecture circuits and more.

Republican benefactors lavish funds on the conservative message machine because they recognize the value of a good surrogate. Candidates don’t pay their surrogates or give them orders. Instead, they rely on them to say all the outrageous things they can’t say themselves.

So far, the left doesn’t have much in the way of institutionally supported partisan counterweights. We’ve got Bill Moyers, they’ve got Bill Donohue. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

Progressive blogs have the potential to become the left wing’s open-source counterpart to the right-wing noise machine. But that doesn’t necessarily mean using money and a title to yoke an established blogger to a specific candidate.

The Edwards campaign wants decentralized people-powered politics. Ironically, by hiring well-known bloggers to manage a destination Web site, it was actually centralizing and micromanaging. Every campaign needs a blog, but the most important part of a candidate’s netroots operation is the disciplined political operatives who can quietly build relationships with bloggers outside the campaign. And the bomb-throwing surrogates need to be outside, where they can make full use of their gifts without saddling a campaign with their personal political baggage.

So while I’m here, already thinking about it because of this fascinating article, here’s my take on the thing.

I thought that there would be no problem for a progressive blogger to put on the “professional hat” and work for a campaign. The Edwards campaign picked two great bloggers: Melissa McEwan (Shakespeare’s Sister) and Amanda Marcotte (Pandagon). Both women are solid workers for progressive causes. Although the genre of biting wit (and occasional vulgarity) may put off plenty of Americans, it is possible to change genres – and people do it all the time.

The objections, smears and attacks were to be expected, especially considering that both bloggers were involved with projects like the Big Brass Alliance. The “swift-boating” smear technique seems to work, and the right-wing likes it (they think it’s a good thing).

Well, Edwards fired, then rehired the bloggers. Ultimately, both bloggers resigned. Victory to the machine.

What surprised me was the first accusation, and its source. The leader of this “politically correct” (!) attack was President of the Catholic League Bill Donohue, known for such statements as “Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity,” “Hollywood likes anal sex,” and Catholics “cooperate in evil” by voting for Kerry.

This paragon of virtue (note to the rusty: that’s “irony,” “sarcasm,” and “ridicule”) accused the two feminist bloggers of being “anti-Catholic bigots.”

I have no problem with tagging certain pseudo-christians as “Christofascists” – that’s exactly what they are. I don’t see how that is anti-Catholic per se, nor is it even anti-Christian. I myself don’t find the attitudes or behaviors of dominionists and supremacists very Christian at all. Those who seek power and control in the name of God and Christ are missing the message (that is the most benevolent interpretation). If the Spirit is characterized by love and caritas and forgiveness and goodness, then… you finish the sentence for yourself.

There are many groups who rally for religious preference, discrimination, and control over other American citizens.
As feminist progressives, these two bloggers (and many others) criticize policies that oppose women, homosexuality, abortion, contraception – and so on. They each use their own kind of wit to do so. For them to criticize these things does not make them anti-Catholic, just as to criticize the political actions of a government does not necessarily mean that you hate that country or its people.

Most Catholics (even many evangelicals) are not fascistic theocratic supremacists or dominionists. Some recognize that freedom of religion is exactly what allowed them to thrive in America. There are many progressive religious people – who care about the stewardship of the earth, for example, or issues about poverty and helping others and compassion. Some even take peace seriously, like the Quakers. There are feminists who have serious issues with abortion. There are even right-wing homosexuals (something I’ve always found difficult to understand).

The point is, the possible religious and political viewpoints are many in the “land of the free.”

Well, I suppose the smear machine couldn’t really go after their support of, could they? They didn’t really want to attack feminism straight off. So they went for the bigotry charge. The media swallowed it.

The smear tactics are basically just operant conditioning (your basic Pavlov, Skinner) applied to language: Create the association between “Edwards,” “bloggers,” and “anti-Catholic” and “bigots.” Spin. Disseminate. Repeat.

There is no “debate” about word association memes. Kerry… Swiftboat. You try one… how about Columbine?

It’s all about making a noise, a viral repetition that sticks. Ultimately, if it is successful, then it becomes a meme existing simply to replicate itself. Contagion. Spread. Mutation. If you want to debate, it’s best to reframe the terms or you’ll simply spread the meme even further. These days, memes can travel faster than the cold virus.

Somehow, I thought that some of the right-wing bloggers might want to preserve some blogging leeway, if only to be hired themselves in a similar capacity for one of their candidates. Nah – they’ll just do it anyway. As Beyerstein points out elsewhere, right-wing bloggers can do such things as calling for murder without damaging their credentials much. There is so much hypocrisy here that it can start to wear you out just contemplating the many examples. And that’s the point.

The strength of the right-wing machine’s method (including the blogosphere) is the collective and coordinated aspect of viral smear campaigns. In line with that, there is little feel for irony, nor is there much regard for honest debate. It is strategic.

For some, off-on/right-wrong/us-them thinking is very compelling and comforting. If nothing else, it relieves them of the burden of self-determination and complex reasoning. It also blocks insights and compassion, though, especially in a context of meme-association conditioning. It results in severely limited focus, if not always outright misrepresentation.

However, you can only roll hate and smear for so long. It’s wearing thin. Attentive Americans across the spectrum are really getting tired of it. I believe that Americans long for something more positive and energizing than that, despite our tendencies toward scapegoating.

There’s nothing wrong with a campaign hiring a blogger – not at all. They should get someone witty, and someone who already agrees with most of the policies and goals of the politicians. It’s a PR job, basically, and there are some good people who can craft messaging, frame the terms of presentation, and all that. Still – that’s PR delivered in blog format. There are other, probably better, roles for journalistic and activist bloggers.

Although I was disappointed that the bloggers decided not to stay on, I also feel that it is probably better for most political bloggers (if not all!) to be independent. Bloggers are providing the kind of debate and discussion that is conspicuously lacking in other forms of media. The blogosphere is a democratic development comparable to the printing press and the copy machine. Freedom of speech – and debate and argument – produce better citizens and a better democracy.

Yes, there are hateful, horrible diatribes. Yes, there are also simple repetitions of talking points.

What I personally enjoy, though, is seeing a whole range of people trying to think things through and figure out where they stand. They get a better feel for language. Some are more compelling than others, some are better writers. The ones who write often, and think, get better and better at untwisting the spin and mutating the memes.

This is the kind of skill that can raise our collective levels of thinking toward something that can respect debate, honor a variety of perspectives, and start finding and implementing more credible and effective solutions to our problems.

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